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Theater project looks a real-life drama in W.Va.

April 03, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - While thought-provoking plays get under way at Shepherd College's annual summer theater this year, another playwright group will venture into the far regions of West Virginia to find out why teenagers are throwing their lives away with early pregnancies.

In what will be the Contemporary American Theater Festival's first outreach program, a New York playwright has been commissioned to write a play about real-life experiences of teen mothers after spending a week with them.

If the project goes as planned, theater directors hope to take the play on the road, performing it at high schools and churches statewide in an attempt to get kids to think twice about becoming pregnant, according to producing director Ed Herendeen.

"We know theater can change lives. It's a great opportunity for CATF," Herendeen said.

Despite efforts to reduce teen pregnancy rates, they have continued to climb over the last 15 years.

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Today one in six births in the state is to a teen mother, according to theater directors.

Officials also estimate that four of every five pregnant teens drop out of school and four of five end up in poverty.

"Whatever we have been doing must not be working very well," said Chris Kuser, managing director of the theater festival.

On April 19, playwright Julia Jordan will start a five-day trip through West Virginia to meet with teen mothers and fathers and talk with them about their experiences. She will meet with them in their schools, homes and shelters operated by Crittenton Services of West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that focuses on young women's health issues.

After putting down her experiences in the form of a play, Jordan will come to Shepherdstown in early June to start a series of readings to work on details of the play, Herendeen said.

On the last three Fridays in June, there will be readings of the play that the public can attend, Herendeen said.

Herendeen said that theater directors realize that getting teenagers' attention is tough, so the play will require good drama combined with a "quick burst of information" to get the message across.

Herendeen said he envisions a play that will have an "MTV appeal" to reach kids.

Jordan said she is not making any assumptions about what will result.

She wants her experiences to form her work.

"I'm very excited to meet the girls. I'm coming into it cold. I've never been in that situation," Jordan said in a telephone interview from her houseboat on the Hudson River, where she lives.

Herendeen said Jordan is a perfect playwright for the production because her works often deal with adolescent issues, especially those affecting women.

"She's really got her ear to the ground for young people," Herendeen said.

Besides her work on the CATF Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project, Jordan will be premiere a new play at the theater festival this summer called "Tatjana in Color," which traces the life of Egon Schiele, an 18th-century artist who was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl.

Marianne Fisher, a physician's assistant who works with many teenage mothers at the Shenandoah Valley Medical System in Martinsburg, W.Va., said the play will be worth the effort.

Teenagers do not seem to understand the consequences of getting pregnant, Fisher said. And the situation is exacerbated by steady pressure teenagers get from the media to be sexually active, she said.

"I very much agree we could use better education," Fisher said.

Herendeen said one step in the process will be inviting state officials to one of the readings to determine if they would be interested enough in the project to commit funding to pay for a statewide tour of the play.

So far, Mountaineer Gas of Charleston and Allegheny Power have agreed to help fund the project, Herendeen said.

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